By Situation Theatre 11/5/2019
Dissident News Corp voices are making out like their papers have recently fallen from once great heights of fair and balanced reporting. Tell that to James Scullin, Billie McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull.
Reading the accounts of award-winning former Murdoch employee Tony Koch and respected social policy reporter Rick Morton gives the impression that News Corp, a once-great, once-balanced news empire, has just recently “lost its way”.
Koch wrote that editorial standards are now vastly different to those for the duration of his 30-year career at News.
“No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”
“Gone is the requirement for balance”, he added.
In an interview at the University of Technology Sydney, Morton said,
“People will tell you going back a decade it used to be a very great paper, and in many ways it still is, but some of the craziness has been dialled up.”
“We know what the empire is, we know what the papers do, but something has changed in the last six months. I don’t know what it is. Death rattles or loss of relevance? And journos pretty much spend all day talking about it.”
With due respect for the fact these journalists have been courageous enough to challenge their current or former employer, this seems like a fairly self-serving re-write of history.
As far back as 1972, Rupert Murdoch used his already considerable media power to bring down the Liberal McMahon government. When beneficiary Gough Whitlam showed insufficient gratitude to Murdoch over his term in office, he too was “killed” by Lord Rupert.
Longstanding but recently spoiled balance? An intolerance for anti-Labor campaigns? Greatness sullied by latter-day craziness?
In fact, the Murdochs’ dogged pursuit of personal political objectives extends back much further than the 70s.
At the height of Keith Murdoch’s political influence in the 1930s and 40s, he used his network of national newspapers to stridently oppose the Scullin Labor Government, elected in 1929. He was influential in pushing Joseph Lyons to break away and form the United Australia Party, which then smashed Labor in the 1931 election. Lyons remained a loyal Murdoch deputy as Prime Minister, often visiting his Melbourne office and addressing his superior as ‘Sir’.
In fairness to the Murdochs, they have been known to balance out serial destruction of Labor governments with destruction of the odd Liberal government.
According to Robert Manne, writing in The Monthly, Rupert Murdoch “used his existing papers ruthlessly in 1972 to undermine the Liberal Prime Minister, Billy McMahon”. Fuelled by a vendetta against McMahon for his alliance with the Packers, this passage from a 1995 article by then UTS lecturer Stephen Stockwell reveals the extent of pro-Whitlam campaigning:
Murdoch then took a close interest in the Labor campaign. In Sydney he ‘sat in as virtual editorial director of his group of papers. He coordinated policy, dictated news stories, gave advice to the Whitlam camp and generally worked a twelve-hour day making sure that advice was used to the best advantage in his own editorials.’ (Regan 1976:97). He also contributed $75,000 worth of advertising space to Labor (Munster 1985: 100) and the relationship was so close that he met with Whitlam after his final campaign rally (Shawcross 1992:162). After the 1972 election Murdoch was quoted as claiming that he had ‘single-handedly put the present government into office’ (Shawcross 1992: 162).
Of course, Murdoch’s support for Labor was never going to last long. In Whitlam’s self-assured way, he refused to bow to the media mogul’s quid pro quo demands. The Labor leader rejected Murdoch’s suggestion that he become Australia’s High Commissioner in London along with a submission from his mining venture called Alwest. Pair those insults with Murdoch’s rightward turn towards the Republicans as he expanded operations in the US and Whitlam’s progressive agenda, and soon enough the Australian PM found himself on the hit list.
In 1975, Murdoch returned to Australia from England to launch what former journalist, editor, and executive at News, Rodney E. Lever, described as “the most savage attack on an elected government in the history of this country — with the possible exception of the attacks on Julia Gillard and Labor’s reforms in the last term of Parliament”.
The US National Archives has just declassified a secret diplomatic telegram dated January 20, 1975 that sheds new light on Murdoch's involvement in the tumultuous events of Australia's 1975 constitutional crisis.
Entitled "Australian publisher privately turns on Prime Minister," the telegram from US Consul-General in Melbourne, Robert Brand, reported to the State Department that "Rupert Murdoch has issued [a] confidential instruction to editors of newspapers he controls to 'Kill Whitlam' ".
“Mr Murdoch’s newspapers always respond in unison – as though to some divine wind – as they pursue their relentless campaigns in favour of current Murdoch objectives – particularly his political ones. Every journalist in Australia knows that.”
According to Fairfax journalist, Tony Wright, writing in the SMH in 1995, “Murdoch’s overt interference in the 1975 campaign was so bad that reporters on the Australian went on strike in protest and seventy-five of them wrote to their boss calling the newspaper ‘a propaganda sheet’ and saying it had become ‘a laughing stock’.”
“You literally could not get a favourable word about Whitlam in the paper. Copy would be cut, lines would be left out,” one ex-journalist told Wright.
That strike took place on the 8th-10th December, 1975, the last week of the election campaign.
The letter from the seventy-five News Limited journalists to their management associated with the strike noted,
…the deliberate and careless slanting of headlines, seemingly blatant imbalance in news presentation, political censorship and, more occasionally, distortion of copy from senior specialist journalists, the political management of news and features, the stifling of dissident and even palatably impartial opinion in the papers’ columns…
Yet, miraculously, in his 30-year career at News Corp, Tony Koch never worked for an editor who “would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”
So, nearly half a century ago, scores of Murdoch journalists went on strike over “blatant imbalance in news presentation and political censorship”.
In 2019, having experienced first hand what Christopher Hitchens described as “the replacement of gutter journalism by sewer journalism”, one former News Corp journalist has written a critical Guardian article, one current News journalist has given a critical interview, and one former Editor-in-Chief of The Australian has said those journalists concerns are “worth thinking about”.
Now that’s progress.
24 years ago, former general manager at News Limited John Menadue was reflecting on Murdoch’s role in the Dismissal. He said something which has only become more salient in the time since, as we’ve watched Murdoch assassinate Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Malcolm Turnbull, and play a pivotal role in the Brexit/Trump double.
“He’s got a lot more power now than he had then and he is dangerous for the commonweal of this country. My concern is Rupert’s power. It’s got to be addressed.”